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Picking the IceHogs' midseason award winners

by Brad Boron / Chicago Blackhawks
All photos courtesy of the Rockford IceHogs

The following feature appeared in the January 2013 issue of Blackhawks Magazine. Pick up the newest issue of the magazine at the next Blackhawks home game, or by calling the Blackhawks Store at (800) GO-HAWKS.

When the Rockford Icehogs broke camp in October, it was evident to all observers that the Blackhawks’ American Hockey League affiliate could have the recipe for success in 2012-13.

It began with a stable of prospects, led by Ben Smith, Jeremy Morin, Brandon Pirri and Ryan Stanton, who were set to begin their third pro seasons and take a larger leadership role on the team. Mix in talented newcomers Brandon Saad, Adam Clendening and Klas Dahlbeck, last year’s bombshell backstop Carter Hutton, and a crop of seasoned vets, including former Blackhawks farmhand Martin St. Pierre. Then add a sizeable amount of NHL experience in the form of Nick Leddy, Andrew Shaw, Jimmy Hayes, Marcus Kruger and Dylan Olsen. Stir well.

Though the results did not yield instant success — it was five games before the Hogs recorded their first win — the product has improved steadily since then, and the IceHogs reached the top of the Midwest Division twice in the first half of the year. But there are no excuses: teaching these blossoming Blackhawks how to win consistently is job No. 1 in Rockford.

"We’ve been inconsistent at times — we’re a little more experienced this year, but it’s still a very young group," says Blackhawks General Manager of Minor League Affiliations Mark Bernard. "The bar has been raised for us ­— we have to find that consistency every night. We have a very good hockey team here, and when you look at the number of skilled prospects here in Rockford, it’s a real credit to [Blackhawks VP/GM] Stan Bowman, [Director of Amateur Scouting] Mark Kelley and his staff."

With half of the season completed, Blackhawks Magazine asked Rockford’s hockey operations team to tell us who earned several midseason titles, including "Most Valuable Player," "Unsung Hero" and "Best Newcomer." The winners run the gamut from rookie to vet, prized prospect to undrafted long shot. Thanks to all of their contributions, the IceHogs are in a good position to make the AHL postseason for the first time since 2010, even though some members are now back with the big club.

"I’d give us an 'incomplete' grade at this point… there’s a lot more to come," says Bernard. "Coming into the second half of the season, we’re in the hunt, and we’re in a good position to move forward and have a great season."

Most Valuable Players and Best Forwards: Martin St. Pierre and Ben Smith

While most players who join the American Hockey League ranks are supremely skilled, what usually separates the greatest players is consistency. Pure skill and luck may get you good short-term results, but work ethic will usually take you further.

That extra element is why St. Pierre and Smith share the IceHogs' top nod.

"Both Martin and Ben do all the little things correctly," Bernard says. "They’re at the rink early, doing their warmups and workouts. On the ice, they’re doing the extra things that make them better players. They lead by example. Neither one is going to be overly vocal in the room, but they lead by example."

Shortly after the season got underway, IceHogs Head Coach Ted Dent and Bernard rewarded each player's dedication, naming Smith an alternate captain and making St. Pierre the seventh captain in team history. Despite the added responsibilities, St. Pierre and Smith have led the IceHogs in scoring since early in the season.

"Both of these guys have displayed a remarkable consistency in their play. Both of them have continued to lead us offensively each night, and their work ethic and attention to detail has been excellent," says Bernard. "Their management of their personal lives and their games are exceptional."

When Bernard went looking for an experienced veteran to supplement his young scorers last summer, St. Pierre was one of the few players he considered, and the 29-year-old center was happy to take the IceHogs' call.

"Some of his best American League years were in the Blackhawks system," Bernard says of his captain, who played in Norfolk and Rockford between 2005 and 2008. "Martin has always expressed an interest in returning to our organization. His playmaking ability is exceptional, and he's one of the best in the league at it. With some good young wingers like Jeremy Morin, Kyle Beach and Jimmy Hayes, we knew it would be a smart fit to have a guy like Marty in our lineup, someone they could learn from."

"He's had a very good influence on the team — he's an experienced player who can play in any situation," agrees Scotty Bowman, Blackhawks Senior Advisor to Hockey Operations. "He's someone the younger players can look up to. His work ethic has been very solid, and he's been a great addition to the team."

Meanwhile, Smith, a 2008 Blackhawks draft pick, has always been a hard-working, high-character player, but this season his offensive totals have matched his effort.

"The way he manages his life is the way I'd wish my son grows up to manage his life," Bernard says. "He is very focused and determined on achieving his goal of playing in the National Hockey League, and everything he does is to get better."

Perhaps more impressively, Smith’s offensive game has taken off just months after undergoing two offseason surgeries, which took several months of rehab to heal.

"He does all the little things correctly," Bernard adds. "He is a real example for the rest of our players, and he's a pleasure to have around every day."

Best Defenseman: Ryan Stanton

One of the true success stories in Rockford, defenseman Ryan Stanton joined the IceHogs three years ago as an undrafted prospect out of the Western Hockey League. He has since become a pillar of the IceHogs defensive corps, and the team's most reliable rearguard.

"Our scouts out in western Canada did a great job identifying Ryan and signing him as a free agent," explains Bernard. "He's in year three now, and each year he has improved. He's been a real find for us, and is very close to playing at the NHL level."

"Stanton gets all the tough assignments, but he’s handled them extremely well," Bowman says. "He brings a maturity to the defense, and he's really been the leader on the back end."

A heart-and-soul kind of player, Stanton does it all, whether you need someone to guard a team's top line, get down to block a shot or muscle an opponent out of the crease. In spite of his tough style of play, the 23-year-old British Columbia native has remained remarkably healthy throughout his AHL tenure.

"Ryan is our iron man — last year, he played in every game we had, and he's maybe only missed three or four games in the past three years," Bernard says. "There's a lot to be said for that — he'll play hurt, and he plays physical and will block a lot of shots. It comes with bumps and bruises and scrapes, but he plays through them. That doesn't go unnoticed by the coaching staff."

In honor of his dedication to the team, Stanton was named an alternate captain for the 2012-13 season, a designation he has not taken lightly.

"He takes a lot of pride in being an assistant captain with us, and he works hard. He's developed into a good leader and a great American League player," says Bernard. "He won't score a ton of points, but he's a plus player and he brings a calmness and steadiness to the back end. He makes a great first pass, has good awareness and his positioning is very good. He also has strength and sandpaper in his game, where he'll stand up for his teammates. Ryan has earned everything he's gotten."

Best Newcomer and Most Improved: Adam Clendening

A dual honor for the 2011 draftee, Adam Clendening's growth curve has been exponential since he first joined the pro ranks this season, following two years at Boston University.

"Adam has just grown into this role as an offensive defenseman like gangbusters. He went from a player who was a healthy scratch at the beginning of the year a couple of times, and has just learned consistency and to play the game with pace," Bernard recounts. "He's at a high level now, and has just gotten better and better as the season has gone on. He's one of the top offensive defensemen in the league right now, in my opinion, and he will only continue to get better."

The crafty puck-moving defenseman has had to grow up quickly, adjusting to the added speed and skill level of the pro game on the fly. Just 19 years old at the start of the campaign, he's drawn rave reviews from Blackhawks and IceHogs staff.

“He's really been a godsend offensively; he's playing with a lot of confidence," says Bowman. "As a tandem, he and [defensive partner] Nick Leddy have worked hand-and-glove with each other. They've been very important players on the power play, which has really picked up since the slow start."

"When players first come out of juniors or college, where they really dictated what they were going to do on the ice, it changes at the pro level. All of the players in the American League have 'been there and done that.' You’re likely not going to show them anything they haven't seen before," says Bernard. "Adam is learning the do's and don'ts of pro hockey, but he has continued to work hard. He's so strong on his feet and good with the puck. He has great vision, and every week that goes by, you can see him getting more confident in his play at this level."

Despite the early struggles, Bernard says that Clendening has maintained a positive mindset and channeled that into raising his game another level.

"He's another player who works extremely hard and has a fantastic attitude," he says. "He's getting better at knowing what he can and should do in every situation.”

Unsung Hero: Klas Dahlbeck

Pop quiz: At the 2011 NHL Draft, after drafting highly-touted prospects Mark McNeill, Phillip Danault, Adam Clendening and Brandon Saad, who did the Blackhawks select using their third-round pick?

You'd be forgiven if the name Klas Dahlbeck didn’t immediately come to mind — it's not easy for a stable, defensive-minded defenseman to stand out among four other high-profile picks. But the Swedish blueliner's reliable play has been superb in his first year of North American hockey.

"He gets overlooked at times because he's not a big offensive guy, but Klas is playing 18 or 20 minutes a night on defense, he's on our penalty kill, and he plays against the other team's top two lines. He's been a plus player for us, and has done an exceptional job night-in and night-out," says Bernard. "Those players sometimes get overlooked because they do such a good job, but they're not flashy. He comes to the rink early, works extremely hard, and you can tell he cares."

"I don't think anyone knew much about him coming over from Sweden; then he was injured at the beginning of camp, and he didn't get to start the season," Bowman says. "But I think he's formed an excellent top pairing with Ryan Stanton and he's adapted well to the North American game. He hasn't missed a beat."

After signing his first NHL contract and moving halfway across the world, Dahlbeck's adjustment to the North American pro game has been seamless. The 21-year-old, who only scored his first AHL point this December, still has room to grow, but will no doubt improve as he gains experience, both at the minor-league level and in his adopted home.

"Early in the season, he had to adjust to the smaller rinks, and that was one of the key elements. He also had to adjust to the number of games; they don't play as many games over in Europe and they don't play them in such a short amount of time," Bernard says. "We might play on a Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, three in three or four in five nights, and that's all new to him. It's our job to make sure we manage him properly, and to make sure that he has enough gas left in the tank to finish the season strong."

Bernard adds that he and the IceHogs coaches been impressed by Dahlbeck's high hockey I.Q.

"He's very smart, makes great decisions and goes about his business each day, very consistently. We're really, really happy with his development to this point in the season."

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